It’s -25 C, snow is blowing and Shawn Marshall is stuck in a tent in the Canadian high Arctic waiting for the twin otter to take him to the other side of the icefield. In the meantime, there are only so many books he can read and so many helpings of chocolate he can eat. Really.
Sitting around is often a part of the research process, whether it’s waiting for transport, a weather window, test results, data analysis or models to run. It’s particularly tough for Marshall, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change, who is an avid cross-country skier, marathon runner and triathlete. He felt trapped.
“It can be pretty frustrating,” says Marshall, a glaciologist, climatologist and professor of geography at the University of Calgary. “Part of the reason for me choosing this sort of field work was to escape from my computer.”
So Marshall came up with a novel way to ward off boredom and collect his crucial meteorological, snowpack and ice core data: he hired students and researchers to ski, bike or run with him to the research stations to help collect data.
“I could keep fit and sane and, at the same time, get at the data in a more environmentally sound manner. On Ellesmere Island, some of my research team and I would bundle up and ski to the stations, minimizing the use of snowmobiles or aircraft,” he says.
It was a dream job for Tara Moran, a former national cross-country skier and Ironman competitor. She first applied to work with Marshall as a field assistant during her undergraduate years studying environmental science and then she worked with Marshall while working on her PhD.
The two would ski to stations on Ellesmere Island and, closer to home in the Rocky Mountains, they would run to a variety of field stations, including one that was a 20-kilometre run each way. Other stations required a full day of biking, trail-running and bushwhacking to access.
“There was usually a tent and other supplies stashed at the station so sometimes we would run back the next day,” says Moran, who was helping to measure the health of the Haig glacier in Kananaskis Country. “Not only could we get there faster than hiking, we could also collect data at more remotes areas; areas where cars or ATVs could not get to.”
Marshall is always looking for people to help with field work. They don’t have to be students: it can be anyone who likes to be active in the outdoors and is interested in science. A lot of the data collected makes its way into scientific journals that help researchers and the public better understand the many issues surrounding climate.
After a few trips to Ellesmere Island, Marshall devised a way to add a little friendly competition between researchers. He developed a propane-powered groomer to create cross-country ski trails around one of the base camps. The first Ellesmere Island invitational cross-country event was held a few years ago, a 20-kilometre pursuit race with three participants, including one snowman acting as a race marshall.